Comedy and the Kitchen Sink: The Art of Writing Comedy

By Jonathan Kesselman

A few months back I had a conversation with an actor about a film we had done together. He brought up the fact that there were certain kinds of jokes in my writing that he personally liked much less than others. Specifically, he argued that whenever my comedy strayed from a more satirical bent, I was somehow lessening the impact of my own work. I disagreed with him whole-heartedly, telling him that my philosophy on good comedy writing employs more of ‘Kitchen Sink’ ethos. The conversation got me thinking more deeply about why I felt that way.

Let me talk about screen comedy in general for a moment. In general (and in my opinion), all comedy stems from irony; that is, the opposite of what is expected happens, and this discrepancy makes us laugh.  Whether this irony is in the form of a line of dialogue, a man falling down at an inopportune time, or the boundaries of the rules of film suddenly shifting when a character breaks out into song, irony was what was being employed. Off the top of my head, there are a number of types of comedy/jokes that can be put into practice when writing for the screen. Verbal humor is dialogue-driven while visual humor (also known as the ‘sight’ gag) relies on the use of imagery to tell a joke. Sight gags can be differentiated from Slapstick, which is humor involving exaggerated physical activity that exceeds the boundaries of common sense. Satirical comedy employs humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of politics or other topical issues. Parody is the imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. Lastly, absurdist humor deliberately violates causal reasoning and produces events and situations that are illogical.

As a comedy screenwriter, my number one job is to make an audience laugh as loudly and as frequently as possible while telling a compelling, well-structured story with interesting characters. I believe that if someone is spending north of ten dollars a pop to watch my comedy, the more laughs they experience, the more effective it is. I believe that there is a reason there are seats in movie theaters; film and comedy are both popular arts, and the more people I can entertain, the better I’ve done my job. Personally, when I watch comedies that rely and tell the same type of jokes without changing it up, those jokes, no matter how well told, get old for me very quickly.

Your finished comedy will not live in a bubble. No matter if your film is for ‘Kids,’ or ‘Urban,’ or ‘Art House,’ or a ‘Hard R,’ it would be silly to assume that your work will only be seen by that one specific audience. Correctly assume that your work will be seen by every conceivable kind of person at every age. The thrill of making comedy for me is sitting in an audience and hearing the laughs I worked so hard to capture and protect from the initial idea to the final mix. You can’t control what the audience brings to the table. Having spent six months traveling to different film festivals throughout the world with my first film, I learned firsthand that something an audience finds hysterical in Berlin might fall flat in Hong Kong; the experiences and baggage that audience brings into the theater will dictate how they respond to your material. Varying your comedy assures that your film will find a greater audience. A perfect example of comedy working at all levels is The Simpsons. Whether it’s Homer saying ‘D’Oh!’ or the use of film parody, or a sophisticated bit of satire, The Simpsons has stood the test of time because it makes sure that it always has something for everyone.

As screenwriters, we strive for originality and to keep our stories fresh; we know that we need to keep the plot twisting. Good screenwriters know that this keeps an audience on their toes and engaged. I think this twisting should be extended to the types of jokes at your disposal. Keep them coming, but more importantly, keep them coming differently, so audiences don’t know where the laugh will be coming from next. Surprise them not only with plot and character, but surprise them with everything you’ve got in that kitchen sink.

Jonathan Kesselman is an award winning filmmaker and writer. He launched his career writing and directing ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ in 2003 to international acclaim with its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It later played a number of international festivals before being picked up for theatrical distribution (Hanukkah 2003) by Strand Releasing in conjunction with Comedy Central and Paramount Home Video.  Voted among the top holiday movies by Vanity Fair, Boston Globe and Time Magazine, the ‘Hebrew Hammer’ was aired on Comedy Central for five years after the television rights were sold to the major cable network.

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